Serb protesters attacking the U.S. embassy in Belgrade on Thursday; photo courtesy AP
As a historian whose primary field is modern Europe, it should be no surprise that I am closely following the events in the Balkans over the past two weeks. After all, the region of the South Slavs has been the scene of more wars than I can count on two hands in modern history, and the news of Kosovo's declaration of independence did not sit well with nationalist-minded Serbians.
It is also tempting to draw parallels with the First World War, where a certain faction of Serbia nationalists assassinated an unpopular Austrian archduke in an act that ignited over four years of unprecedented bloodshed. Yet I am less concerned with the potential for violence and terrorism among radical Serbs than I am for the further deterioration of the relationship between the United States and Russia.
The Russians and Serbs have a lengthy history of mutual admiration and support that is equal parts political and cultural. The Russians have traditionally viewed the Serbs as part of a larger Slavic ethnicity, and when forced to choose sides, the Russians have stood by their Serbian cousins though countless diplomatic and military conflicts.
I am disappointed that the United States and the European Union did not work more proactively to slow the Kosovar move to independence as a means of easing the transition to statehood. I think that a longer period of Kosovar autonomy - without formal independence - would have defused the predictable Serbian outrage while keeping the Russians on the sidelines. The seemingly unequivocal embrace of Kosovo's independence by the United States also suggests that the State Department is either brazenly reckless or woefully ignorant of the history of the region. Of course, these are the folks whose ham-fisted aria of "freedom and democracy" has been a dismal failure elsewhere, so I suppose that I should not be surprised at the lack of awareness of matters Balkan among members of the Bush administration.
I fully support the right of the Kosovar people to the principle of self-determination, but I also recognize that this process is akin to navigating a minefield. Ethnic Albanians and Serbs have legitimate historical and political claims to the region, while imperial meddling by the Ottomans and poorly-considered provincial carvings by Josip Broz Tito left Kosovo with an unharmonious blend of ethnic and religious strife.
It should also be pointed out that the Russia of 2008 is much healthier than the post-Soviet nation in disarray that could offer only a token protest in the face of a US-led NATO effort during the 1999 Kosovo War. Russia has the world's largest natural gas reserves, the second largest coal reserves, and the eighth largest global oil reserves, and the Russian economy has benefitted from the skyrocketing energy prices. More importantly, the government of Vladimir Putin is a far cry from the bumbling, drunken, kleptocratic chaos that was the Boris Yeltsin administration.
Will the crisis in the Balkans spark a Third World War? Probably not, at least not in the next few years. However, I see the US-Kosovar love fest as a wedge that drives further away the Russians from rapprochement with the West. Moreover, the possibility of a Russian-Iran axis - or even a Russia-China-Iran bloc - becomes a more likely prospect with each bungled American diplomatic move.
And that, kiddies, is a scary scenario.